Feeling Exposed

19 May

Exposure 24, the solo 24hr National Championships is less than 3 days away now and I’m sitting here wondering where has the spring gone?

On the one hand I think I’m in as good a shape as I’ve ever been and I’m definitely getting faster but the step change from half-arsed leisure rider to being competitive hasn’t gone exactly as I imagined.  A training regime is a difficult thing to adjust to when you’re not used to it and there’s plenty of things that get in the way, equipment needing servicing, the weather, the need for sleep, employment etc, all very inconvenient and not necessarily the things you think of when you set out but that’s the reality of it.  There’s been times when training has been going great; full weeks of hard riding or multiple days of long miles but there’s also been times when I kind of fall off motivationally, sit around the house doing nothing when I meant to get out early on the bike.  Morning slips into afternoon and the plan for an all day mtb ride becomes a consessionary road bike ride before I realise that the road bike needs fettling and by the time I’ve done that it’ll be getting dark.

On the whole though over the last 3 or 4 months there has been continuous riding and training the like of which I’ve never had before and even if the mileage count won’t knock you over, its still been well over 600 hard miles a month but the main thing is that I have achieved the mindset I need to be a more competative racer and that has been a transition you perhaps couldn’t have explained to me 3 months ago, so maybe I’m being too hard on myself.

Here we are then, with possibly the most significant 24hr race the UK has ever seen ready to kick off on Saturday and I’ve been tipped as a contender.  Well that’s a bit of a turn up for the books; I am probably the most unlikely of anyone on that list and everyone there has serious credibility, so much so that I feel quite out of my depth.  With that too, I have lost the safety net of anonymity; Exposure 24 will be the first 24hr race where I will line up with the expectation of putting on a performance, rather than exploring my own abilities and enjoying a personal challenge so it will be a very new experience.  I’m not setting my ambitions any higher than aiming for a top 10 though and I’m even hesitating to type that: if I achieve top 15 or top 20 I will be very happy indeed.

Yet with all the anxiety over racing the big boys I am quietly confident that I have enough resolve and endurance to finish the race and that counts for a lot in a solo 24.  All too often big favourites go out hard with what proves to be an unsustainable pace and in the small hours when real mental hurt comes, its too much and even they can crack; that’s what happened at sleepless and that’s how I got my podium, by tapping it out and moving through the field during the night.  Could that be how I might get my place in a top 10 already over-subscribed with big names? the more of them there are to tear each other’s legs off and break each other, the more may drop out.  I just need to make sure I stick to the plan and keep tapping it out again.

Another question I have been asking myself: ‘Am I in better form that I was at Sleepless last year?’ – I honestly don’t know.  Probably, and if not then I’m not far off.  Overall this year I didn’t expect to start the season with top form: I will be looking to improve through racing and so my results should get better throughout the summer with my main targets being at Sleepless and maybe 24/12.  This means I take the pressure off myself a little in the first couple of events and I’m doing four solos this year there is a good chance of burning out by July if I’m not careful.  Exposure is a big deal though so I won’t be holding back.  It will also be the first 24hr race of the year for many others too so there’s a good chance that not everyone will be at their full potential yet either.  One can live in hope at least!

What I do know is that 24hrs is a long time and many things can happen.  For me this is a good.thing – I can go out and ride my race, discover my form and still have time to light the blue touch paper later in the race and that’s the way I like it. Whatever happens Exposure 24 is going to be epic and it’ll be the best thing to happen to UK endurance racing.  I feel very lucky to have moved to a position for it where people are starting to seeing me as a worthy competitor and where I can get a meaningful insight into what it takes to be knocking on the door to the top end of endurance mountain bike racing.  Despite big nerves building this week, my prevailing feelings are still of massive excitement.

I should also mention that my good friend Guy Kesteven will be supporting me at Exposure 24.  Guy is great to have around when I need encouragement and understands the moodswings of racing well and, like just about everyone that has anything to do with this race, he’s also very excited about it.  Before Sleepless 2009 I’d not had any support and asking friends to give up their weekend to make sure I shoveled enough cake down my throat and push me back out on course when I want to sleep seemed a bit primadonna-ish especially when I didn’t expect to be getting the results.  At Sleepless though, where I had the good fortune to be adopted by Rod Dean’s pit crew of Mr Leitch and the Exposure guys, I found out just how much difference a good ‘pit bitch’ can make so having Guy along gives me great confidence.

So then… all my gear is sitting in the lounge ready to throw in the van in the morning and after work I’m headed north. If I’m not ready now its tough luck!


Fred or Dead: Part 2

17 May

I was frustrated to lose the quick group and set about fixing the tyre without much much urgency but rather enjoyed the novelty of my first time fitting tubular tyres and using the CO2 inflation.  I tried not to think about what could happen on the descent of Honister if I made a balls up of it.  When two decent sized groups of quick riders went by though, the first containing wheelbase Mike who had dropped off the back of the other group on Kirkstone, I got my act together, finished up and set off in pursuit.  After a couple of miles down the road the new tyre was making an odd ticking noise each rotation and I decided to stop where the route hit the A66 to check it out.  I couldn’t find anything wrong with it in the end and lost more time but it was better that than ending up sliding down the road on my face later.

On the A66 I had little choice but to get as low as possible on the bike and put the hammer down as there weren’t any quick riders around.  I caught several groups of more leisurely riders quickly as the traffic had backed up behind them and I cheekily drafted a few cars and trucks to make my way up the road.  Eventually after a couple of miles of time trial action I reached a group that looked like it might contain some handy riders.  The group was fragmented though and not working together so I decided to accelerate away.  It was only when I’d got a few hundred yards down the road did they get together and give chase.  They caught me and I joined the group to recover but ready to do my bit when required and the group just fell apart again, no one wanting to take the work up front, as we pulled out of Keswick then I got fed up, hit the gas again and moved away.  By this time I didn’t care if I hit the bottom of Honister in a state – the idea now was to have a killer training ride, my chances of a good time had already gone.

I took to a time trial like pace again for a few miles putting plenty of distance between me and the other group and eventually caught two riders in Honister 92 jerseys.  The three of us worked well together for a while before sitting up and chatting a little as Honister loomed into view and we gathered ourselves to take it on.  Honister is the first of the very steep passes and arguably the second hardest climb on the Fred, partly because it is longer than Wrynose but also because its the first steep one and hits you hard sending your heart rate through the roof early on with no chance to get a rhythm.  Two riders from the A66 group, one in a Katusha top and another smaller guy in KMB kit, caught me half way up the steep section.  Both were clearly better climbers than me and had the physiques to match.  They moved up the hill with much less effort and started to disappear into the distance until the gradient relaxed a bit and I was able to keep them in sight.  Over the top and down the other side and I had thankfully completely forgotten about my hastily fitted tubs, even when passing the paramedics tending to the inevitable downed rider.  This section is super steep and NOT the place to crash, even so with a smooth line and looking far ahead I found myself easing off the brakes more and more and quickly passing numerous riders including the two riders who had done me on the climb.

I reached the checkpoint at Buttermere just ahead of the KMB rider and, knowing we were heading for Newlands Pass straight after I ‘dibbed’ quickly and gave him the slip.  Both he and the Katusha guy, predictably, caught me on the climb but they’d clearly put in an effort to do so as, when I turned round to give a bit of banter acknowledging our little battle, there was no reply and I was able to pull away a little again to prolong the fight.  Sure enough though their power to weight ratio did me again but by this time we were almost at the top and as it leveled out I was able to catch up before making my getaway on the descent.  I was from there to Whinlatter I was able to put a decent distance between us just by descending quicker but I hit a dead stop when traffic was backed up in Braithwaite and a marshal held me and some other riders at the junction for a good minute.  When we got going again and exiting Braithwaite, Katusha guy and KMB man appeared from a side street, obviously missing the jammed junction and were right back on my case – cheeky!

KMB man had probably had enough by this point, or maybe his smaller frame lacked the power as I didn’t see him for a bit and Katusha guy and me were locked in another battle.  He put a couple of hundred meters into me as I struggled to keep back cramp but then I got a rhythm I could hold and he didn’t get any further away.  I heard the familiar cries of “put him in the Hurt Locker!” from a certain Ian Leitch standing on the side of the road, it wasn’t directed at me but it gave me enough encouragement to mount a fresh attack and I started reeling Katusha guy back in again.  As in the previous year the top of Whinlatter was full of people cheering and that gave me all the encouragement I needed to put in an effort that saw me catch him.  By the top he was more talkative and we chatted a bit before he said ‘you’ll burn me in these s-bends’ and backed off as the road got steeper and faster again.

Yet another descent and another getaway and I was starting to hurt but then so was everyone else.  The next few hills we smaller but the terrain was trying  – crucially I was starting to run out of food and water and rationing them only added to the fatigue.  I conceded to eat everything I had left and stop at the next feed station to re-fuel.  Approaching the bottom of Cold Fell my tyre was starting to feel soft again so I had to stop to top it up with the last of the CO2 again and yet again I was caught and passed but this time I was quite a way back.  Cold fell is my type of climb though, shallower gradient and long, by the top I had caught them all and by the descent it was the same old getaway.  I stopped at Calderbridge only to get passed again and find I had much more water that I thought, then at Irton Pike it was Katusha guy’s turn for a pit-stop and by the roll in to Hardknott we were all together again but I knew what would happen next.

Hardknott is the climb where you concentrate on putting the next pedal stroke in because that’s all you think you can manage, then you go for the next one and the one after that and eventually you end up near the top with one last push to make.  Every time I climb that hill I don’t think I’m going to make it and every time I get to the top I still don’t feel like it should have been possible, like somehow I’ve cheated and slipped by while gravity wasn’t looking.  By the top my front tyre was soft again, like nearly flat soft, I tried the CO2 again but in vain and set off gingerly on the descent.  Wrynose was hard but manageable in the wake of Hardknott and knowledge it was the last push but the bodies of the broken and tired were littered around the final few hundred meters.  By the descent my tyre was just about flat and when I hit the cattle grid near the bottom that was the final nail in the coffin (in fact I thought the rim was going to shatter).  I tried to re-fit the original tyre and get more gas out of the half spent canister but it was no use.  Around the corner a guy gave me the rest of his CO2 and that got me a couple of miles down the road before it was dead flat again.  After a mile or so of riding on the rim I borrowed a pump of a marshal and got a modest amount of air into the tyre.  There was only a few miles left to go and a guy passed me an shouted ‘jump on!’  I started to say it was a bad idea to go his speed with a flat tyre but then went anyway and held on.  My GPS was reading slightly out and it wasn’t as far as I thought back to Conniston.  I was pleased to make it back and totally surprised to scrape into the ‘elite’ category by the skin of my teeth with a time of 6 hours and 59 minutes and 19 seconds.  I was pretty happy with that considering everything.


Fred or Dead: Part 1

13 May

The affectionately named 'Murder Bike' breaks its all black stealth regime with swanky Bonty climbing wheels, ready to take a few scalps at the Fred.

Last weekend was the 2010 Fred Whitton Challenge. After finishing last year’s event a semi gibbering idiot after going too hard at the start, getting caught in the hail at the top of Hardknott Pass, blowing up on the run back into Coniston yet still setting a respectable time, I said I wouldn’t bother again. It was a great event but one I’d ticked off the list and I had no need to go back.

Well, that was before I decided to get serious about endurance racing this year. Fast forward nine months and the Fred presented itself as the ideal line in the sand, a good time on what is regarded as the UK’s hardest one day mass ride was there to be bear

The Fred comes at a very handy time too; being well positioned to be a good tester of form ahead of the start of summer racing as well as a chance for one last hardcore training ride to bring that form up to scratch. There are then no excuses for holding back – the only way I could have a bad ride at the Fred is if I had to pull out or just didn’t try hard enough. Going too hard too early – like last year can’t really be considered to be a mistake then. In fact it probably should be encouraged

As in the ’09 Fred I had the pleasure of riding with Mick Style of the Manchester Wheelers. Mick is an experienced road racer and also North West Vets Cyclocross champ and knows the Fred Whitton route very well so is great to ride with and watch as he’s always well positioned in a group of riders, hard riding and yet able to pace himself well through the ride.

8am is usually when the serious club lads start and to stand any chance of a fast time it pays to be in the main group of the day, especially when it gets to the A66 and turns into one big chaingang. This year was no exception, as we made our way down to the start we a large and likely group of riders ready for the off. Among them were plenty of the smart new white jerseys of the local ‘Honister 92’ road team and also Mike from wheelbase, a strong rider who we’d ridden with for most of the previous year’s event.

‘Dibbing’ to start the timing and hitting the road, the pace was immediately high and about 8 white jerseys took to the front as the group, some 30 strong and growing as we swept up riders ahead on the road, became strung out in single file. By the bottom of Kirkstone Pass, with one climb out of the way, the average speed was over 20mph. I shouted to Mick that we should try to keep with the group over Kirkstone, to save ourselves the hard chase back on we had last time, but we were both a little unsure as the pace was a little too hot for comfort. Fortunately as we got the climb the white jerseys relented and the group climbed steadily before reforming a little lighter in number and resuming the charge on the fast flat to Ullswater. We were making very good time in the main group and weren’t far from the A66 but for me it wasn’t going to last.

Cresting Matterdale end my front tyre was feeling soft, then very soft, I said goodbye to Mick and pulled over, the ultra-light Bontrager climbing wheels I’d borrowed for the day were tubular carbon types so I was praying I wouldn’t get any trouble with them, although its possible to ride on a flat ‘tub’ we were only 25 miles in and another 80-odd isn’t really an option. Fortunately I had a spare tyre and CO2 inflation kit but approximately zero experience fitting tubs.

To be continued…

Muc Off 8 Report

14 Apr

The Muc-Off 8 wasn’t originally part of my plan racing-wise this year as I’d not heard about it until a month or so ago and a friend and I were scheming some kind of monster 24hr road ride instead.  The thing about starting to train properly though is that quite soon you become the one who takes it more seriously than your regular riding mates and your priority becomes getting proper endurance training while theirs isn’t.  In fact they get told their priority is moving their girlfriend out of her flat.   The Muc-Off 8 looked like it filled the gap nicely then, 6 weeks ahead of the UK24 it provided me a good chance to get a race head on and test my form while there was still time to do something about it.

I was secretly hoping that it might be off the radar for many of the serious endurance racers and I’d be in with a good chance of a bit of early season glory but a check of the starting list on the Saturday soon brought me back down to earth hard.   I was more pleased than disappointed to see Ian Leitch’s name up there though, despite the fact it meant getting a sound kicking, it also meant there was someone to hang around with.   Being fairly new to the sharp end of endurance racing I didn’t recognise too many other names other than Ant White, regular 24hr Solo winner, but the name Iain Payne rang a bell too though I didn’t know for sure.   When I caught up with Ian at the registration tent later though we checked the list again “ah yep, know him, he’s good…and him…oh Szabi, he’s a big marathon racer from Poland…and see him, he’s the brother of…” and any reckoning I had of a decent result began to fade; top 10 if I’m lucky then I thought.

We met up with Olly and Phil from the Kenisis/Morvelo team and went out for a practise lap.   The course was an energy sapping mix of steep climbs, rutted bogs and lumpy grass with a few singletrack sections towards the end that just about flowed.

The good news was the Le Mans style start was mercifully short: a few hundred yards up to a flag, round and back again to grab yer bike.   My knees don’t like running at the best of times and I’d spent a pretty anxious week wondering whether my right knee would be up to riding at all after a quick run the week before brought back a recurring injury.   I started right at the front and quickly dropped back but I figured I didn’t loose much more than 30 seconds or so.   I did find myself in traffic for most of the first lap though and although I managed to get some pace together, it came at great effort and without any rhythm.

Getting out of the saddle in the first steep climb of lap 2 and already holes were starting to appear in my thin veil of strength.   Knocking it back a few gears and spinning, I finally got a Rhythm going but it was short lived as by lap 3 my back was reminding me that I had been putting too many hours in on the road bike and not enough on the mtb.   The course wasn’t just hard on the legs, it was physical too.   If I was to last the distance I would need to save some strength and already feeling fatigued so I decided to take it a bit easier and take on plenty of food and water.  Hmm did I say top 10? …Maybe more like top 20 at this rate.

For the next couple of laps my main motivation was to get past the half way mark without being lapped.   I knew from my own struggling pace that it was going to happen; the only questions were who would pass me first and when?   At the end of lap five I was starting to get the warning twinges that cramp wasn’t far away and decided to ditch the bottles in favour of the Camelbak as the feed stations had run dry.   Finally half way round lap six and thankfully over 5 hours into the race, I looked back on the longest climb to see Ian’s green IF kit chasing me up the hill.  I wasn’t really surprised but encouraged by the fact he was finding it hard work too, even if he was flying. Laps 7 and 8 just kind of got lost in the noise really.   By that time I was preparing myself for one last push on lap nine as I knew there wouldn’t be a ten.  On the last climb back to the event arena for the penultimate time I was slowed right down with my legs on the cusp of locking with cramp with every pedal stroke.   On the last lap I threw caution to the wind and just over half way into the lap I spotted a guy up ahead who was going at a similar pace and I was gradually reeling in.   He looked over his shoulder, saw me and put his head down.   I didn’t know if he was solo, in a team, on the same lap as me or anything but he was a fair target and I wasn’t going to take the chance.   I chased him with everything I had left over that half a lap and after a mistake in the last singletrack he got the hundred yards or so back that I’d fought so hard the last 20 minutes for and I thought I’d never get him.   As we came onto the last climb though he started coming back to me.  I pushed and the cramp threatened again but didn’t come so I dug deeper and pedalled harder and still it didn’t come but my legs were ablaze with lactic acid and I was nearly along side him.  Just a couple more pedal strokes and I could just sneak a look at his number board…

…It started with 2, yes! And with that I stopped pedalling.   There was no throttling back, no easing off, it was burning legs of fire or nothing and I nearly fell over.   The burning was quickly washed away by a wave of new blood hitting my legs which brought with it the promise of more energy and I upped the revs again, inching him in over the last several hundred meters and this time it was his turn to yield and I headed for the finish line.  But wait! Whats this? – A last minute attack! He got nearly a bike length on me as I hesitated, I don’t have anything left I thought and I let him go.

No not really! There’s always something left for a sprint finish, we reached the line wheel to wheel congratulated each other then wandered about in a daze in the finish area for a bit.  Good stuff!

I still didn’t know where I’d come.   I wandered over to congratulate Ian, 18 minutes he’d won solo by and come 3rd overall with Ant White second and Szabi Bandli a lap down in third.   Checking the screens I missed my name on the first few rotations, still thinking I’d done rubbish.   When I finally spotted my name it was 19th overall and 6th in Solo.  I was very happy with that all things considered.   Despite not feeling great I wasn’t a million miles off the pace but with plenty of room for improvement I’m looking forward to the summer.

This season I will be mostly riding…

2 Apr

Yesterday my new bike for this season arrived.  Thanks to the guys at Fli Distribution I will be riding under the banner of Oneal/Solid Bikes this year and so will be riding the flag ship XC  Solid suspension bike; the ‘Performance Race’.   The Performance is a full carbon xc linkage bike that weighs in at tidy 9.8kg (or 21.6lbs in old money).

This is the first of the XC race bikes to make it to these shores and after a bit of a wait its good to finally get my hands on it.  Unfortunately it arrived just as some seriously wet weather has hit the UK so its maiden ride may have to wait until Sunday.  Until then its been getting the full fettling treatment in anticipation.

Its not my usual style to be so fastidious with a bike but this is a full on race weapon and I’ll be relying on it to get me through no fewer than four 24hr solo races without missing a beat so it pays to be diligent.  For the most part I will only be using it for racing though I do have some longer training rides planned and of course it’ll need some riding over the next week or so to get used to, ahead of the Muc-Off 8 Enduro.

Despite being feather weight the Solid feels just that for first impressions.  The weight savings mainly come from the full carbon fibre construction, right down to the drop outs, linkage clevises and rocker plates, as well as the full SRAM XX groupset and SID XX World Cup fork.   There’s no ultra-light machined out silliness here, just good use of materials across the board with pretty much everything getting a lick of carbon.

‘That’ cassette is probably the most extreme length SRAM have gone to drop the weight of the XX groupset with a staggering amount of machining from a solid steel billet.  My first experience of XX was back in December when I had a SRAM demo bike for few days and have to say the front shifting was very impressive over all previous SRAM offerings I’d tried.  The rear however had seen a lot of use and abuse and was difficult to dial into one gear but I was assured that was due to the cables and was sorted out after I’d given it back.  It’ll be interesting then to see how it goes from fresh.

What’s in the Blog?

28 Mar

So as to help anyone who has stumbled across my particular ramblings, I shall use this first post to explain what the whole point of this blog is…

I am an amateur bicycle rider and racer who is in some sort of transition, if you like, from being a ‘pretty good’ leisure rider who does a bit of racing to being something a little more than that.  How much more I don’t really know yet, but I intend to find out and its kind of the intention of this diary to document that.

I’ve never taken myself seriously enough to talk about ‘training’ before and I expect there are many others in a similar situation who are passionate about a sport as a hobby and would like to improve but feel there is a ceiling to their abilities beyond which a whole new level of dedication is required.  I guess I’m writting then for anyone else who feels that they are on the cusp between the ‘weekend warrior’ and something a little bit more ambitious.

It is intended to be a frank account of how it feels to try and raise your game into a competitive sport; in this case mountain biking and in particular endurance cross country events.  It will hopefully have lots of routes content with GPS logs and training data along with nutritional information.  As a Design Engineer and occasional Product Tester I will no doubt have a few opinions on the bits and bobs I’m using too so there’ll be plenty of kit commentary.  For me, I’m somewhere along a learning curve of developing a training plan, getting nutrition right etc so I may re-cap what I know for the benefit of others,  likewise I appreciate the comments of others who may know more or know different.